More than half a billion animals worldwide are involved in the animal tourism industry. But according to Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, three out of four wildlife tourism attractions involve some type of cruelty. Here’s how to ensure your next animal encounter is cool, not cruel.
Don’t: Ride Elephants in Thailand
Riding an elephant is high on the wishlist for many travellers, but there is extensive evidence from animal welfare groups that elephant rides can cause tremendous physical and mental damage. Many camps keep elephants in severely inadequate conditions, training techniques can be violent and the metal frames used to haul tourists can cause serious harm to elephants’ legs and backs, as well as their spirits.
Do: Walk With Elephants in Thailand
A total boycott of elephant attractions may cause more harm than good. There is little viable land to release elephants back into the wild and elephants, their mahouts (trainers) and families still need to be fed and cared for. Instead, support ethical elephant sanctuaries, such as the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai or the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary, which have large grounds for the animals to roam in. Conservationist Louise Rogerson, who established the newly opened Phuket Tree Tops Elephant Reserve, advises: ‘Don’t just read reviews: also look at photographs and videos posted, avoiding anywhere people are riding, hugging or bathing with elephants.’ It’s far more enchanting to view elephants who are happy, trumpeting and playing in their natural environment.
Don’t: Snorkel With Whale Sharks in the Philippines
With their friendly, gentle natures and freedom to come and go, you’d be forgiven for thinking that swimming with the whale sharks off Oslob in the Philippines is ethically sound. What’s less apparent is that the whales are tempted to the area with food: a practice which impacts their natural behaviour, including the ability to feed naturally, rest, breed and tend to their young.
Do: Join a Whale-Watching Tour in Canada
Canada has a vast coastline and pristine, nutrient-rich waters, and it leads the way in responsible whale-watching practices, including using carbon-neutral boats. Kayak alongside orcas in Vancouver, get up close to more than 50,000 belugas in Manitoba, and marvel at blue whales leaping up the St Lawrence River in Quebec. It’s not just Canada, of course. In Australia, Tasmania’s Maria Island and Rottnest Island off the coast of Perth both see enormous migrations of humpback whales. Closer to home, make for Tai O and join a tour to spot Hong Kong’s rare pink bottlenose dolphins.
Don’t: Go to an Animal Cafe in Tokyo
Hedgehogs, owls, goats, even meerkats, lizards and snakes have all featured as a part of Japan’s craze for animal cafes – the epitome of kawaii cuteness, right? Wrong. For one, hedgehogs and owls are nocturnal, and don’t like to be handled. Doing so can lead to them becoming stressed, depressed and ill. There’s also the worry of where exotic species may have come from in the first place – and what might happen if the cafe closes down.
Do: Get up Close at an Animal Rescue Centre
There are a number of fantastic animal sanctuaries scattered around Asia’s tourist centres, all in need of support and donations to continue their good work. In Cambodia, there’s the Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity, which rescues and rehabilitates endangered species – leopard cats, Asian civets, silver langurs – and Free the Bears, a rambling compound filled with sun and moon bears, located a 90-minute drive south of Phnom Penh. Phuket has the Gibbon Rehabilitation Centre, and Borneo’s numerous nature reserves, including Semenggoh, allow you to hang out with rescued and orphaned orangutans.
Don’t: Snap a Selfie With a Tiger in South East Asia
Tiger photo ops have become popular in the last few years. But tigers are not big cuddly cats; they are wild animals – even if they have been raised in captivity. For tigers to interact with humans in this way they need to be drugged, declawed or both. Many tourists who sign up don’t realise that the animals are kept in poor conditions: small cages where cubs are often taken from their mothers far too early. If you can stroke it, hug it, or take a photo with it, there is likely to be some cruelty involved.
Do: Go on a Tiger Safari in India
There are currently more tigers in captivity than there are in the wild, but intensive conservation efforts in India have helped to raise the country’s tiger population by more than a third over the last four years. Ethical tiger safaris can be found in Jim Corbett, Kanha and Ranthambore national parks, while in Bandhavgarh National Park in Central India, more than 50 tigers roam across 100 square kilometres of beautiful Jungle Book-worthy countryside.